Clinton says Internet censorship harmful to governments

Censorship efforts in China, Iran and elsewhere will hurt the nations, the U.S. secretary of state says

Countries that continue to censor the Internet face long-term economic and social costs, with oppression leading to civil unrest and not security, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday.

Even though some countries, including China, are now growing economically while censoring the Internet, that growth is not sustainable, Clinton said during a speech on Internet freedom at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Clinton called on governments in China, Iran, Vietnam, Burma and elsewhere to end Internet censorship while pointing to recent attempts at censorship in Egypt and Tunisia that failed.

Countries will not be able to maintain divisions that separate economic activity on the Internet from social, religious or political activity, Clinton said. Some countries have tried to get the economic benefits of the Internet while blocking other activity, she said.

"Walls that divide the Internet, that block political content, or ban broad categories of expression, or allow certain forms of peaceful assembly but not others, or intimidate people for expressing their ideas are far easier to erect than to maintain," she said. "There isn't an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet. There's just the Internet."

Attempts to censor the Internet while reaping its economic benefits will lead to "moral, political and economic" costs that are not sustainable in the long run, she added. "There are opportunity costs for trying to be open for business but closed for free expression, costs to a nation's education system, its political stability, its social mobility, and its economic potential," Clinton said. "When countries curtail Internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future."

Clinton's speech Tuesday is her second major address on Internet freedom. In January 2010, she announced several new Department of State initiatives to fight Internet censorship.

The Chinese government criticized her first speech and denied that it restricted Internet freedoms.

Clinton mentioned China several times during Tuesday's speech. Some observers have noted that China's economy is growing while the country censors the Internet, she said.

But Internet restrictions will have "long-term costs that threaten one day to become a noose that restrains growth and development," she said.

Countries censoring the Internet should look at recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, Clinton added. In Tunisia, the Internet provided an economic tie to Europe, while censorship was "on par with China and Iran," she said.

"The effort to divide the economic Internet from the everything-else Internet could not be sustained," she said. "People -- especially young people -- found ways to use connection technologies to organize and share grievances, which as we know, helped fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change."

Businesses should be wary of operating in countries with heavy Internet censorship regimes, Clinton said.

"If you invest in countries with aggressive censorship and surveillance policies, your website could be shut down without warning, your servers hacked by the government, your designs stolen, or your staff threatened with arrest or expulsion for failing to comply with a politically motivated order," she said. "The risks to your bottom line and to your integrity will, at some point, outweigh the potential rewards, especially if there are market opportunities elsewhere."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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